US Wars are for Empire, Not for Profit

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Yemen is being destroyed. A US-backed “Saudi Coalition” has been bombing and shelling Yemen for 16 months. The UN puts the civilian death toll at 3700, but (aside from the question of why combatants’ lives apparently only count if they are Western soldiers) this probably vastly under-represents the death toll by both direct violence and by the indirect effects of the war. Most of the country has no reliable access to clean water and people, particularly young children, are dying of disease and deprivation.

On August the 22nd, two eminent commentators gave interviews on Yemen. Harper’s magazine editor Andrew Cockburn (author of a book on drone assassinations called Kill Chain) was interviewed on Democracy Now! Later in the day Medea Benjamin (prominent activist co-founder of Code Pink and also author of a book on Drone Warfare) was interviewed on KPFA’s Flashpoints.

Cockburn and Benjamin were in complete agreement about two very important facts. This first is that this is a US war. As Cockburn wrote in a Harper’s piece:

Thousands of civilians – no one knows how many – have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.

This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.)

The second important fact is that Saudi violence is is targeted against civilians and civilian infrastructure. To quote Cockburn again: “They’ve destroyed most of the health system. They destroyed schools. Human Rights Watch did an excellent report pointing out that they’ve attacked—consistently attacked economic targets having nothing to do with any kind of war effort, but like potato chip factories, water bottling factories, power plants. It’s an effort to destroy Yemen. And … we are part of that. This is our war, and it’s shameful.”

The type of warfare Cockburn is describing, systematic violence against a national group and systematic destruction of a nation-state, is exactly what was meant by Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term “genocide” (as you can read for yourself here) and it is clearly covered by the UN Convention against genocide which prohibits any intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a national group by:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

I will return to the significance of the concept of genocide in due course, but there is a third very significant thing on which Benjamin and Cockburn agree, and that is that the US motive in participating is to make money. In response to Kevin Pina’s opening question as to why the US is involved, Benjamin answered: “That’s a pretty simple one: money; greed; US weapons industries. The Saudis have become the number 1 purchaser of US weapons.” In this case, however, I must vehemently disagree with Benjamin and Cockburn (and on this subject it often feels like I’m disagreeing with the entire Western world). Blaming greed, or the power of profit, is a dangerous delusion. If opposition to permanent warfare continues to be dominated by this trope then we will never be able to end these ongoing massacres. Nor, for that matter, will we be able to halt the war on the domestic front – the intrinsically linked increase in militarisation, surveillance, and state violence (actual and potential) that is the other side of the permanent warfare coin.

There are many things that make me angry about the wide-held belief that US foreign policy is shaped by the profit motive. It is facile; it is intellectually cowardly; it is self-defeating; it is chauvinistic (or more specifically Usacentric) and thus unavoidably racist; and it is embarrassingly credulous. Nicholas J S Davies recently published an excellent article on the “normalisation of deviance” which causes US foreign policy elites to embrace a worldview of vast cognitive dissonances, in which realities of illegal and inhumane US practices are subsumed (and thus made possible) in the oceanic assumption of fundamental existential US benevolence, benevolence of US purposes, and benevolence of US intents. My contention is that Benjamin, Cockburn, and others I shall name are part of a constrained and disciplined dialectic of opposition that condemns the individual dissonant actions but actually accommodates and reinforces the US exceptionalist worldview that creates the “normalisation of deviance”.

There are two things that are very crucial to understand. One is that the US exceptionalist worldview is hegemonic throughout the West and, to a lesser extent, globally. What this means is that when judging the actions of the US government we project our own self-image onto imagined or real agents (such as the US President). We assume that the motives behind their actions are sane and rational and not malevolent in intent (unlike those of demonised enemy leaders who are often assumed to be acting out of irrational or diabolical intent). That is not to say that the claim is that US foreign policy is rational, but rather that irrationality is created by the system, while US leaders are personalised as rational beings who mean well in exactly the way that enemies of the West are personalised as irrational and/or malevolent in intent.

The second thing to understand is that without the widespread “normalisation of deviance” US military interventions would be impossible. Many US personnel would not follow the flagrantly illegal orders which they currently enact without a second thought. Other countries would not continue to cooperate with the US except when necessary and they would make war crimes prosecutions an unsurpassed priority of public and private diplomacy.

The idea that “war is a racket” and that wars are fought to line the pockets of profiteers is part of a tradition that comes out of an ideological consensus that is so widespread as to be nearly invisible. This is a materialist consensus between Marxists, liberals, conservatives, and others which embraces economic determinism (meaning roughly that economics shape society rather than society shapes economics). Note that Marxists often reject economic determinism as merely “vulgar Marxism”, but the fact remains that the very terminology of Marxism, much of which is used by non-Marxists, ensures that they remain shackled to that basic position. Free-market liberals, conservatives, neoliberals, and libertarians are ultimately just as tied to economic determinism, not least because they embrace the notion of capitalism which (as we tend to forget) comes from Marx. The point about this materialist consensus is that creates a common language in which people can intelligibly argue about the fine details of a fundamentally nonsensical construct. Disputants on both sides find that the path of least resistance lies in affirming the underlying orthodoxy and working with that, and the prefabricated arguments that come with it. The fatal flaw is that dissent becomes limited and impotent to affect change.

People who cite the military-industrial complex and profiteering as being a cause of US foreign policy often seem to be rather smug with what seem to me to be an unjustified sense of bravery and insight. I think people find it satisfying because they have the sensation of having pierced a veil, or having clambered over the thorny hedge that surrounds the a meadow of classroom platitudes. Such people, presumably, feel good about themselves for being clever. They will generally only be challenged by people who still cling to an even less tenable analysis so they need never interrogate these beliefs.

There is also a certain calculus of dissent. If you reject the mainstream view in the most obvious and easy fashion, you can be sure that you will have a cohort of like-minded semi-dissidents. However, if you then question and reject the easy critique, you will most likely find yourself isolated and deprived of the common language and shortcuts shared between the mainstream and semi-dissenting viewpoint. Usually someone will be quite young when they reject idealistic notions of politics and embrace a sense of amoral economic determinism and human greed or self-interest as driving forces behind the exercise of power. Once they have that conviction it will be a foundation on which rests all of their political analysis that they develop through life and thus it becomes an ingrained unexamined habit of thought.

However, when it comes to war, the centrality of profit/profiteering becomes a big problem. There are some exceptional circumstances, such as the interests of US financiers in World War I, in which powerful individuals may have a strong profit-motive that leads them to agitate for war. On the whole, however, wars do not create wealth, they destroy wealth. Some interests may profit, but fighting wars will reduce overall profits (except in as much as they may allow an upward redistribution of wealth through the disbursement of tax money and government bond money (which is the tax money of future generations)).

In the US context people may mistakenly believe that they have a more robust analysis than “war is a racket” because they can cite the existence of the military-industrial complex. The problem with that is that is presumes that the military-industrial complex just created itself. On Waatea 5th Estate, for example, Henry Rollins opened an interview by explaining the whole thrust of US politics since Reagan as being caused by the needs of the military-industrial-complex and the prison-industrial-complex. In fairness, he did go on to show that he understood the prison-industrial-complex to be a dynamic mechanism (situated in history) for reproducing the racialised “caste” system that subjugates African Americans. However, he shows no such insight into the military-industrial complex, though its historical roots are, if anything, more strikingly functional than those of the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex exists to maintain a domestic social order through violent subjugation and the military-industrial complex exists to maintain imperial hegemony and an international social order through even greater violence and subjugation.

The term “military-industrial complex” was coined by Dwight Eisenhower at the end of 8 years in the White House. The forerunners of the complex can be seen in the British Empire. Thus, in trying to diagnose the British Empire at the end of the 19th century, John A. Hobson noted that the Empire was an economic drain, but that it benefited “certain sectional interests”. He specified that these interests were the finance sector plus the shipbuilding, boiler-making, and gun and ammunition making trades”. In those days of British naval supremacy shipbuilding and boiler-making were the equivalent of the aerospace industry in the US today. Hobson, like today’s aficionados of the military-industrial complex, treated the whole thing as if it were some sort of scam – an unfair and vastly disproportionate way of fleecing the British people and the colonies. But the disproportionality itself showed that profit could not be a driving factor. Why, after all, would wealthy landowners and traders sacrifice their own wealth, as Hobson claimed, for sectional interests? If those interests had taken control of policy, why and how?

The key to understanding this “empire complex”, as I will call it, is that these “certain sectional interests” were, alongside the military and some other parts of the British state structure, the governing structures of the Empire (and the informal empire). This rose from a deliberate blurring of the lines between state and private power. For example, in Century of War F. William Engdahl writes of 3 “pillars of the British Empire” (finance, shipping and control of natural resources) and gives this example of interpenetration between private interests, government and British intelligence:

Britain modelled its post-Waterloo empire on an extremely sophisticated marriage between top bankers and financiers of the City of London, Government cabinet ministers, heads of key industrial companies deemed strategic to the national interest, and the heads of the espionage services.

Representative of this arrangement was City of London merchant banking scion, Sir Charles Jocelyn Hambro, who sat as a director of the Bank of England from 1928 until his death in 1963. During the Second World War, Hambro was Executive Chief of British secret intelligence’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Government’s Ministry of Economic Warfare, which ran war-time economic warfare against Germany, and trained the entire leadership of what was to become the postwar American Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence elite, including William Casey, Charles Kindelberger, Walt Rostow and Robert Roosa, later Kennedy Treasury Deputy Secretary and partner of Wall Street’s elite Brown Brothers, Harriman.

The US military-industrial complex took things further than its British forerunner. When Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” he was referring to something with long historical roots and antecedents, but nevertheless he was referring to something new; something only a decade old. In earlier drafts of Eisenhower’s farewell address it was referred to as the “military-industrial-Congressional complex”. In retrospect it was unfortunate that the word “Congressional” was omitted, because he nature of Congressional involvement shows a level of premeditated planning. Military contracts were distributed to every possible Congressional district so that every representative would be vulnerable to losses of jobs and income in their district. Politicians were being deliberately tied to the complex, so that it would be possible to either direct or replace any who spoke out against the interests of the complex. This was all happening at the time when NSC-68 became policy, creating what we know as the Cold War.

NSC-68 was a policy document signed by President Truman in 1950. It halted the post-WWII demobilisation of the USA and put the country on a permanent wartime footing. Though top secret, the 58 page document is stuffed full of propaganda that painted a fictitious picture of the USSR as a military threat to the USA. It states: “The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin … and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.” NSC-68 is full of fake figures and outright lies about Soviet capabilities. The document was probably not intended to persuade lawmakers and administrators as much as it was to give them a Party-line and talking points. These were words, phrases and arguments that could sell a new brand of USA to the people living in the USA itself and the strongest dissenting voices were soon silenced by McCarthyism.

Military spending tripled in the three years after NSC-68. An armistice was signed in Korea in 1953, but the military spending remained at wartime levels, and has never significantly decreased since.

The military-industrial complex was purposefully given a lever to control Congress and this tells us something about the intentionality of its creation, but I must point out that the complex has other levers to pull. Like other big industries which rely on government contracts and/or a lucrative legislative and policy environment, the private interests in the complex spend vast amounts on lobbying and campaign donations. This alone gives them “unwarranted influence” far in excess of what Eisenhower might have envisaged (at least in the fact that that influence is ineradicable by any means short of revolution). It gets even worse, however, because elected officials in the US are heavy investors in weapons and aerospace, and House and Senate members are not prohibited from insider trading. Between 2004 and 2009 19 of 28 members of the Senate Armed Services committee held stock in companies to which they could award contracts. They are only: “precluded … from taking official actions that could boost their personal wealth if they are the sole beneficiaries.”

The circle of venality tying politicians to the military-industrial complex works through bonds of greed and self-interest, but it has nothing to do with the profit mechanisms of “capitalism” as it is usually conceived. The complex was partly the product of historical processes shaped by power relations, but more importantly it was a conscious artifice. At the same time that food companies were developing the “TV Dinner”, US political elites created a TV Dinner military hegemony which went with a new TV Dinner empire. They pulled back the foil on their instant empire by announcing the doctrine of Cold War “containment”. Modelled on the 19th century “Monroe Doctrine”, by which the US gave itself the right to intervene in any Western hemisphere country, “containment” meant that any time the US had the power and desire to intervene they would simply claim that there was a Communist threat.

The military-industrial complex was created to tie government to the project of empire, however it did not remain static once created. Because this is an empire, success within the system is not determined by market forces, as much as market forces are twisted, wrangled and beaten into a shape that feeds the semi-private arms of imperial power. They are profitable, but that is incidental.

Both the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex are subsumed within a greater empire complex. This model of government corruption (campaign financing, lobbying, revolving door appointments, intellectual property legislation, no-bid contracts, cost-plus contracts, bail-outs, etc.) creates a whole class of industries that are co-dependent with government. These are not random concerns, they are tied together by a shared characteristic. Such industries include arms; aerospace; finance; agribusiness; pharmaceuticals; health; oil and energy; infrastructure; media and communications; and security/policing/prisons/mercenaries. What ties them together is that whoever controls these things controls nations and peoples.

The imperial complex creates a situation where it becomes inevitable that the business of empire is empire, and nothing else unless it is in the service of empire. The government of the USA is so integral to the empire complex that, in foreign policy, it is purely devoted to the extension and maintenance of imperial power. In fact, the model of governance imposed on the empire by the public-private branches of the empire complex, widely known as “neoliberal”, increasingly provides the model of domestic governance. The US is colonising itself. The empire complex has evolved to control, not to build, nurture or protect. Like empires of the past, it has become the tool of a narrow elite whose interests are not truly tied to the motherland any more tightly than they are to the colonies.

This brings me back to the claim that the US is behind the bombing in Yemen because it feed the profits of the military-industrial complex. The claim is 100% wrong. None of this is for profit. It was a system intentionally constructed to maintain and extend imperial hegemony. It’s subsequent evolution has not in any way made it capitalistic, but has alarmingly broadened and deepened the governance structures.

There is an underlying assumption by Cockburn, Benjamin and other such critics of US foreign policy that the money factor has perverted foreign policy from its true course. This implies that uncorrupted by money (and nefarious foreigners) US foreign policy would revert to being a largely benevolent practice directed by concern with national security, the national interest, and the prosperity of the homeland. The frustrating thing about this is that it is a complete refusal to simply attempt to analyse an empire (which many critics US foreign policy gladly admit that it is) as an empire. It is sad that trenchant critics of wars (and the bloodthirsty elites who wage them) are stuck with such a childish mentality. They evince a faith that the proper purpose of the system itself is akin to that of a parent (whether loving or stern) and that Dad just needs to sober up from the intoxication of money.

Most critics of US foreign policy assume that it is a dysfunctional branch of nation-state politics, rather than even entertaining the idea that it might be a very rational and functional arm of imperial politics. For example, they assume that provoking terrorism against US interests and people is a failure of policy, but there are no concrete reasons for believing this. In contrast, one can argue that the US provokes terrorism on purpose in order to justify foreign interventions and erosions of civil liberties. That is a reasoned position that explains US actions with a clear motive. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but let us consider conventional assumption that provoking terrorism is a mistake. In that case the contention is that an observed repeated pattern of behaviour (the various violent provocations such as invasions, bombings, torture, kidnappings) is a continual series of errors due to systemic dysfunction. To support this you must create a complex analytical apparatus showing that some essentialist cultural characteristics (a blend of ignorance, arrogance, and the desire to do good) cause US officials and personnel to keep repeating the same mistakes and never learn their lesson. All of this, a massive offence against the principle of parsimony, rests on the assumption that there can be no intent to foment terrorism because those same officials and personnel are collectively inclined to protect Usanians and US interests. This all falls down though, in the very obvious fact that the US government only protects US citizens when forced to. In the policies environment, public health, health, economy, trade, infrastructure, civil defence and (let us not forget) foreign intervention the US government shows that it will happily sacrifice the lives of its citizens. Terrorism deaths are a drop in the bucket compared to those caused by the insufficient healthcare in the US. Moreover, if you pre-ordain that non-interventionism and demilitarisation are not allowable foreign policy options, then you will not allow a policy that keeps people safe from terrorism. In practical terms that is a conspiracy to foment and harness terrorism for foreign interventions because the results are foreseeable and unavoidable.

Accompanying the infuriating belief that the natural state of Western governance is enlightened self-interest is the more repugnant and hypocritical belief that non-Western foreigners act in ways that need no explanation other than their hatred, brutality, and irrational violence. We endless ask ourselves where the US went “wrong” over various acts of mass violence, but no one feels the need to agonise about what part of the Qatari national character causes them to keep making the “mistake” of thinking they can bomb terrorism out of existence. The only analysis you need put forward is that they hate Iran, or hate Shi’a or (if you are really sophisticated) hate republicanism, then there is not need to explain why this translates into bombing or invasions or torture or any form of violence. When non-Westerners commit such acts it is treated as no more remarkable than the sun rising.

When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with US weapons, few entertain the notion that the Saudi Arabia might be acting as a US proxy, even though the US must approve enough to keep supplying the bombs. Instead we have a frankly racist discourse that suggests that Saudi Arabia is by some means dragging the US into a conflict in contravention of US interests. This whole “tail-wags-dog” trope really pisses me off. The US has been using the supposed rebelliousness and truculence of its puppets as an excuse for its actions going at least as far back as Syngman Rhee, the dictator they installed in South Korea after WWII. Everywhere that they possibly can, the US installs leaders who are unpopular enough with their own people that they are dependent on the US military to stay in power. That is how you run an empire. Sometimes it is in the US interest that such people make a show of anti-imperialist defiance, but when they really are defiant they tend to find themselves exiled, dead or imprisoned in fairly short order.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, an oligarchy of royals rules in defiance of the public will and the public interest. That is the classic recipe for a client regime, and probably differs little from a standard Roman client regime 2000 years ago. Iraqi-American analyst BJ Sabri has been posting a multi-part analysis of Saudi subjugation for over some months and argues that Saudi dependency is very deep, perhaps unusually so. In Part 2 of the series Sabri wrote:

On one side, we have the Saudi deference to the United States. I view this deference as follows: (1) confluence and reciprocal opportunism of two different but oppressive ideologies —Wahhabism and imperialism; (2) oil and petrodollars, and (3) a long history of secret deals—since the day Franklin D. Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1945. On the other, we have a supremacist superpower that views Al Saud as no more than a backward tribal bunch whose primary function is providing special services to the United States. These include cheap oil, buying US weapons, investing oil money in the US capitalistic system, supporting US hegemonic quest, buying US national debt, and bankrolling its covert operations and wars.

To drive the point, I argue that the combination between lack of means, lack of resistance, and other forms of dependence (US political and public relations support, for example) has created a situation of dependency. It incrementally forced the Saudi regime into a mental subordination to the United States similar to an occupied mentality.

Of course, others will tell you that the US must be acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia because they have no motive of their own. As Cockburn reports, “no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. ‘Honestly,’ he told me, ‘I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.’”

When people like Cockburn make reference to “our national security” as if it were a factor in US military interventions I have to check that I haven’t been whisked to a parallel dimension. When has US national security ever been a consideration in a US decision to attack another country? This is the most interventionist state in the history of humanity and from an historical perspective the only differentiation in terms of national security is whether the US government puts a lot of effort into lying about having a national security interest (e.g. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Korea, Iraq); puts on a minimal or pathetic show (e.g. Grenada, Laos, Syria, Libya); or doesn’t really bother with the pretence at all (e.g. Haiti, Somalia, Panama).

Implying that a given US military intervention is aberrant because not does not serve national security is gross intellectual cowardice. It is a way of critiquing US policy without ever suggesting that the US might itself be worthy of criticism. Notions of exceptionalism are not challenged but rather are enforced by the implication that each act of mass violence is a departure from an unspoken norm. These are criticisms that sanitise and conceal US agency and intentionality by using the equivalent of the passive voice.

Gareth Porter is a fine critic of US policy when it comes to challenging the lies of officials who are gunning for war. He has written extensively to debunk the nuclear scare tactics used by US officials to threaten war against Iran and to impose cruel sanctions. But Porter is also an exponent of this passive voice historiography. His 2005 book Perils of Dominance documented the fact that the US had an unassailable strategic hegemony and lied to create the impression that the USSR was a threat to national security. It is a very useful book (although I would dispute his exculpation of Lyndon Johnson), but the way Porter frames facts, indeed the central “thesis” of the book, is that not having any genuinely security fears caused the US to invade Viet Nam. It is rather like framing a story of spousal abuse by focussing on the fact that the perpetrator was induced to beat the victim because of a large difference in size and strength.

The reason I bring Porter up is because in a recent interview with Lee Camp he said we need to go beyond the military-industrial complex and look at the “national-security complex” and the “permanent war state”. At first glance you might think that he and I were on the same wavelength, but despite admitting to long years of “committing the liberal error of opposing the war, but not the system”, he refuses to relinquish his central delusion. He reprises the same analytical framework that was very common after the US withdrew from Viet Nam under titles like Quagmire Theory or Stalemate Theory. The idea is that bureaucratic systems running on their own logic become the determinants of foreign policy. This allows people like Arthur Schlesinger (himself an official under Kennedy) to state that the war in Indochina was “a tragedy without victims” and talk of “the politics of inadvertence”. This apologism can be seen in book titles on US war that emphasise benign intent or lack of agency such as Nobody Wanted War, or the book by one of the US officials who help destroy Iraq whose lame excuse is We Meant Well.

Discussing Syria (though it could just as well be Yemen) Porter says US actions point to “the total inanity and irrationality of US policy”. This is the critique of someone who wants to go on record as opposing US warmongering but wants the least possible challenges and repercussions for doing so. It resonates easily with people, but it simply does not hold up to any intellectual examination. US aggressions, as Porter admits, fit a pattern of behaviour, so are they irrational? Irrational would imply self-defeating, but the US has been destroying countries, Balkanising them, destabilising them, killing and impoverishing in many places. They have created an ever-lengthening string of failed or near-failed states in actions so momentous that they have created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Why would irrationality be so consistent and have such a strong impact?

I do not have the time and space here to detail the intrinsic links between genocide and imperialism here, but let us not be unnecessarily stupid and deny that empires profit from Balkanising, partitioning and destroying countries that are strategically inconvenient. That is well established as part of history, and there is no reason at all to think that the US should be any different. The US empire, despite its internally generated weakness and contradictions, goes from strength to strength in foreign policy. The USSR is gone and NATO is on Russia’s border. China is besieged by the “Pacific pivot” and the TPP. Independent nationalist regimes that reject the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” (which is the surrender of economic sovereignty to the US empire) have been picked off one by one. In global terms the US has never been more powerful.

How many times do we need to see the same intentional destruction of a country and its people by the US before we call it what it is – genocide. This is intentional destruction of “nations and peoples” and it is exactly what the term genocide was coined to describe.

The US empire is hollowing itself out. As it fails internally it will be ever more driven to impose control globally. As the 2016 Presidential campaign enters its crucial stage, we are entering the most dangerous period of history since the Cold War. We cannot afford to cling to delusions. We need to oppose US wars; evict US military bases; end mass surveillance and intelligence co-operation; reject neoliberalism and pro-corporate trade deals; and we need to reject the propaganda and discourse of US exceptionalism and apologism. When I say “we”, I mean every single person on the planet (including people in the US itself). The empire has to be beaten back on all fronts, because otherwise there are two horrific options: either it collapses, or worse still it doesn’t.

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Why Blocking the Revolving Door Won’t Fix Human Rights Watch

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A recent open letter decrying the links between Human Rights Watch (HRW) Western powers was signed by two Nobel peace laureates and over 100 scholars. Belén Fernández wrote an outline of the problem – the “revolving door” which surely has a corrupting effect. However well-meaning most HRW employees are, and no matter how much of HRW’s work is well-meaning, the organisation is tainted and it is not independent. The same is true of Amnesty International(AI). However, preventing the continuation of relations between these organisations and the US State Department will not fix the greatest problems. It is a necessary but woefully insufficient measure. In order to become functioning independent human rights organisations both AI and HRW must actively oppose imperial power. They must reject all actions which facilitate attacks by powerful states on those less powerful. If they do not do that they are doomed to remain tools of empire, promoting interventions that do more harm than decades of good work can undo.
Selective AmplificationAs the US unleashed its military might on Viet Nam, it also unleashed charities. USAID provided funds for many and the US extended a paternal possessive wing over all. Helping the less fortunate, after all, is what the US is all about. By their own account that is why the US had troops in the country – to help those too weak to defend themselves. And USAID was part of the strategic approach in Viet Nam, and it remains so today. (NGOs were told by Andrew Natsios in 2003 that they were “an arm of the US government” and he threatened to rip up USAID contracts of any NGO that failed to act as such.)

The people of South Viet Nam needed charitable assistance. Many were orphaned, dispossessed, injured, diseased or impoverished. Yet many charity workers, singly or en masse, came to the conclusion that they could not, in conscience, continue rendering aid. The charities were doing the same work as that of the US military civic action programs. They weren’t winning the hearts and minds of Vietnamese, as much as they were providing public relations cover for the destruction being wrought by the full weight of US military might.

The problem is that by structural reflex a power as dominant as the US automatically co-opts all that can be co-opted. The vast majority of massacres by US troops – such as those documented by Nick Turse – were not reported by journalists. The vast majority of villages destroyed were not reported. But it almost seemed that every time a Westerner dug a well there were 30 cameras pointed at him. It was inevitable. The US government had the capability of promoting coverage of the one and suppressing coverage of the other.

There is a persistent myth that bold journalists spearheaded the growing opposition to the war in Indochina by fearless reporting, There is also a journalistic myth that reporting is shaped by “news values” which, for better or worse, are responsive to audience interests – “if it bleeds it leads” “man bites dog”. This is utterly wrong on both counts. Most reporting from the field in Viet Nam was coverage of those things that the US military arranged to be covered including huge amounts of coverage of civic action programs. Far from being sensational, these stories were as dull as dirty dishwater and just as good at obscuring the ugly truth that lay beneath.

There is the same inevitable selectivity with regard to the actions of human rights NGOs. Even without the corruption which has occurred in AI and HRW, the US will always be able to amplify any accusations levelled against its enemies and targets, while it also wields a great amount of power to deflect and diffuse criticism aimed at itself.

 

 

Promoting Slaughter

In October 1990 AI gave crucial support to the fraudulent claim that Iraqi personnel had murdered premature babies by removing them from incubators. They would later retract that support, but less than three weeks after the incubator lies Amnesty released a report on atrocities carried out by Iraqis in Kuwait. The report contained unconfirmed as well as independently verified reports of atrocities. Atrocities were definitely taking place, but why dramatise the report with unconfirmed allegations? Amnesty’s answer: to “raise awareness”? But, the entire world was already watching. Saddam Hussein was the most vilified person on the planet. George Bush had labelled him as worse than Hitler.

No one should underestimate AI’s impact in this instance. People were wary of US warmongering, but atrocity propaganda is a very powerful tool. It is one of the ironies of human existence that people are mobilised to commit atrocities by stories, true or false, of the atrocities of the targeted enemy. AI helped unleash a quarter century of insecurity, fear, death and grief on the Iraqi people. With those actions alone AI destroyed its value to humanity – taking all of the hard work of dedicated and sometimes brave and self-sacrificing individuals and converting that into a form of capital to be spent by murderous warmongers.

 

 

An Army of Straw Men “Marching in Lockstep”

Democracy Now! hosted a lively and enlightening debate between Keane Bhatt and Reed Brody of HRW.

I’m normally one to doubt the assumed goodwill of various people. I find it silly to say that “nobody doubts” or “nobody can doubt” the good intentions of people doing bad things. With any politician or bureaucrat there is always considerable grounds to doubt good intentions. Not only does power corrupt, but so does prestige and money. In our dysfunctional world, anyone who does achieve success should be viewed with the greatest suspicion. Orthodox thinking is far more ubiquitous now than, say, the mid-20th century in the West. It is very rare for anyone to achieve recognition without “drinking the Kool-aid”, which is often the elixir of self-satisfaction.

In the case of Reed Brody I am willing to concede, that he seems to be the genuine article – a humanitarian famed for taking on US-backed dictators. I don’t know how he has failed to notice the toxic nature of HRW, but I suspect that the nature of his responses to Bhatt provide some insight.

Keane Bhatt raised serious issues about HRW. Some of the issues were disputed. Brody rejected the characterisation of HRW as having a “revolving door”. But he also repeatedly said that Bhatt was wrong because HRW did not “march in lockstep” with the US State Department. This was one of a number of “straw man” arguments. Bhatt never claimed that HRW did “march in lockstep”, so Brody is creating a straw man to knock down in order to create the impression, for himself as much as for other people, that he has demolished one of Bhatt’s arguments.

Brody insisted that Bhatt and other critics of HRW were motivated by support for the Venezuelan government. This fallacy is called the “appeal to motive”. It isn’t just a tricky debater’s ploy, in fact in debates such as this one it tends to fail. It indicates the natural thought processes of Brody and others in that sort of position. Presumably Brody already knows that HRW are the good guys, so when serious accusations are levelled at HRW his mind does not focus on the validity of the arguments. He simply wants to know why people are attacking HRW. Once he has found what he thinks is the best answer, he must naturally believe that once he explains it to others they will all, like him, feel that the puzzle is resolved.

This is why delegitimisation is such an important tool. Those convinced of their own benevolence can only explain profound criticism by saying that the source itself is tainted. This is true of any White House or State Dept. spokesperson who knows that the US is a force for good in the world, but it is also true of any NGO or alternative media that have proven their goodness by criticising the US and Israel. The people who attack them are crackpots, malcontents and ideological zealots. Any substance in their criticisms is merely the substance of blemishes on the surface of the radiant sphere that describes the whole.

 

The Straw Giant

Brody’s most powerful counter to Bhatt’s claims, on the surface at least, was his invitation to everyone to visit the HRW website: “I think anyone who is familiar with our work, anyone who takes the time to look at our website, would see, first of all, that we routinely criticize the U.S. government.” It is true. Brody is trying to show us that glowing orb he sees as the truth – the real HRW which boldly takes on the crimes of the US and Israel. Once you embrace the underlying assumption of fundamental benevolence then you will see things the way that Brody and his colleagues see things. Collections of people like this are known as “reference groups”.

“Reference groups” share values and share assumptions. The problem with such groups is not that the assumptions are necessarily invalid, but rather that their validity is never tested. No one inside the group can originate challenges to assumption that they themselves hold, and when someone outside the group challenges them, they respond with the sort of delegitimising thought processes described above. Reference groups help to cause what is known as “groupthink” and also what is known as “confirmation bias”, when people focus on and give greater weight to evidence that fits preconceived conclusions.

There are two major problems with adopting the Brody’s view. One is that, even viewing HRW in isolation, it cannot explain the substance of those accusations of bias. These are real issues, and simply saying that HRW is often critical of the US doesn’t address the substance. The second is that, as mentioned, if HRW does not actively guard against co-optation, the nature of our society will ensure that any even-handed approach will become distorted in transmission to the public.

In the final analysis, the HRW website and the internal view of its activists and employees is another straw man. It is an impressive straw man – compelling and seemingly substantive. But it is not the internal functioning of HRW which is the final measure of its nature, and it is not the front it presents to those engaged enough to seek it out. HRW’s true nature is how it functions in our society.

 

Where There’s Smoke…

Humanity is complex, and its institutions equally so. But if you ascribe an essence to something there is a severe limit on how much of its character you can ascribe to asymptomatic products of human complexity. In other words, Human Rights Watch cannot be “independent” if it has any ties with regimes which commit human rights abuses. As Fernández writes:

“Javier Solana, for example, was NATO secretary general during the 1999 assault on Yugoslavia, an event HRW itself described as entailing “violations of international humanitarian law.” Solana is now on the group’s Board of Directors.”

So by HRW’s own lights, there is prima facie evidence that Solana is a war criminal – yet he is appointed to their board of directors. That is not a aberrant little matter that has no bearing on the otherwise independent nature of HRW, it is actually all the proof that is needed that HRW is not independent at all. Let’s not be stupid about this – if HRW’s employees and activists actually were independent of thought and action they would never have allowed someone suspected of war crimes to be appointed to their board.

If HRW workers were truly independent, they would not tolerate their bosses saying that there is “a legitimate place” for extraordinary renditions. If HRW workers were really independent they would revolt against executive director Kenneth Roth tweeting his support for military intervention in Syria.

Brody objected strongly to concept of HRW having a “revolving door” with the US government, but that is another straw man. “Revolving door” is a subjective usage. It is great for drawing attention to the issue, but easy for someone like Brody to dismiss. But you don’t need a “revolving door” to be compromised. Brody tried to talk down the numbers, but after the debate Bhatt tweeted showing an email from one of two HRW employees to join Samantha Power’s team.

This isn’t just about Washington D.C. political actors either. Along with even further ties to US government Bhatt has also revealed:

“To be sure, not all of the organization’s leadership has been so involved in dubious political activities. Many HRW board members are simply investment bankers, like board co-chairs Joel Motley of Public Capital Advisors, LLC, and Hassan Elmasry, of Independent Franchise Partners, LLP. HRW Vice Chair John Studzinski is a senior managing director at The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm founded by Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire who has passionately sought to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. And although Julien J. Studley, the Vice Chair of the Americas advisory committee, once served in the U.S. Army’s psychological warfare unit, he is now just another wealthy real-estate tycoon in New York.”

 

Magnified Bias

People defend HRW on the basis of the undoubted good work they do, but that is beside the point. An academic engaged in human rights issues, such as Stephen Zunes here, may be in a situation any irregularities or biases seem of minor importance compared to their invaluable documentation of crimes by numerous regimes. However, as Bhatt points out: “documentation is different from advocacy and operationalizing that research.”

HRW, like AI, is biased in favour of Western interests. Here, for example, you can see some of the criticisms levelled at HRW over its disproportionate and inaccurate condemnation of human rights abuses in Venezuela. It is bad enough that HRW tried to create a sense of equivalence in human rights abuses and political repression between Venezuela and Colombia, but you would have to be very stupid indeed to be blind to the potential of such a report to be used for ill-purposes. Just like the AI report on Kuwait under Iraqi population, such a report his a negative impact out of all proportion with its significance. In private and public diplomacy this is ammunition for US interventionists.

Every time HRW condemns an enemy of the West, they themselves put greater energy into “awareness”; Western bureaucrats and politicians suddenly decide that they are, in this instance, an authoritative and independent voice; and, most of all, the media really report it. And when I write “really report” I mean that it enters the echo-chamber of the real media agenda. It is said that US media have perfected the art of lying “by only telling the truth once”. Something reported a dozen pages in to the NYT is simply not part of reality for the vast majority of people. If you want to understand what HRW is really about watch mainstream news and current affairs programming.

We who read the sort of articles you get on this website, such as the one you are reading now, form a minority reference group consisting of people who know a lot more detail about political events than most members of the public. We should not forget, however, that even watching the television news regularly is more than most people manage. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, who compiles reports on network news broadcasts, points out in an interview with Danny Schechter that network news broadcasts have far greater viewer numbers than cable news – about 5 times as many. So the really real HRW, in practice, isn’t even what you would get from CNN, but rather that which is on the nightly news broadcasts.

 

“You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Bhatt points out the double standard of HRW advocacy: “Let’s take the case of drone strikes in Yemen, for example. What Human Rights Watch is advocating is not for the immediate cessation of drone strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians around the world. What they’re asking for is greater transparency on the legal rationale for continuation of those drone strikes. So, the idea that the United States can treat the entire planet as a legitimate battlefield is simply unquestioned.” In contrast we have seen Roth’s call for intervention in Syria, but even if this were not the case there is an unavoidable pitfall in criticising enemies of the West.

The fact is that when HRW condemns an enemy of the West, their own advocacy in terms of solutions is only part of the picture. By highlighting that there is a problem HRW effectively arms those in political power who seek to create a casus belli – a pretext for deadly intervention. They should also recognise that when the US seeks to intervene as a matter of course they will create disinformation through covert agencies which will inevitably target groups like HRW in just the same way that they target media outlets in order to propagate the disinformation.

Equally, any concession to the sensibilities of US leaders, any extra softness such as that displayed over the use of deadly drone programme, effectively means that HRW is acting as an agent in a “limited hangout” action. By soft-selling the criminality of US actions, they actually become part of a discourse which normalises those crimes, making them seem legitimately disputed actions rather than unambiguous crimes. The lack of urgency signals a lesser moral weighting while also allowing acclimatisation among a public who become like the proverbial boiling frogs.

Reforming groups like HRW is much more complicated than simply enacting rules about employing people who have previously worked in governments implicated in human rights abuses. Here is my three-step programme:

 

1) Disembed: Clearly HRW cannot legitimately hire people who have worked in policy related functions at the US government. It is sickening that they should think even one such person is acceptable. That goes equally for putting the former Secretary General of NATO on the board of directors. They should also have a ban on those from high-level military, police or intelligence backgrounds. These are the sort of organisations usually implicated in human rights abuses, and it should be as clear as day that they do not belong working in human rights organisations. They should also be wary of hiring those who have worked at low-levels in such organisations because they will be inclined to identify with potential human rights abusers and because their insider perspective will often be privileged as being “expertise”.

Reed Brody proudly embraces the idea that there is a “revolving door” between HRW and the United Nations secretariat. Given that much of the UN bureaucracy is devoted to ostensible human rights functions it may be hard to avoid interpenetration, but it is hardly something to tout as a source of credibility. Under a UN flag, millions of civilian casualties were caused in the bombing of Korea. Under a UN flag, an estimated 1 million Iraqis died due to genocidal sanctions, and in Haiti blue-helmeted troops have provided support for death squads and massacres. In addition, the UN is inevitably a corrupting hierarchy in which even those with the best intentions must become careerists in order to acquire the power and influence to effect positive change. This sort of relationship makes a hollow mockery of the notion of “independence”. Power structures such as that of the UN corrupt because they disproportionately favour those who are not burdened with unbending principles and thus tend to empower the self-deluding and the sociopathically dishonest.

Disembedding will require more than mere hiring policy changes, it will require a psychological negation of embeddedness. The rank and file of HRW will have to utterly reject the close identification of their superiors with those who wield state power.

It can be done. In 2012 people were naming Amnesty a “shill” or the “propaganda arm” of NATO or as an “imperialist tool”. Consternation has particularly been fueled by Amnesty USA’s crucial support for NATO’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. Ann Wright and Colleen Rowley wrote of “announcements posted online as well as billboard advertisements on Chicago bus stops, telling “NATO: Keep the Progress Going!’” The CEO of AIUSA at the time was Suzanne Nossel – former employee of HRW, the US State Department, the UN and the Wall Street Journal. If those aren’t insider credits enough, she is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Do you think that that qualifies her as part of the US political elite? I do. But AI members expressed their displeasure and Nossel resigned soon after. A small victory perhaps, but a sign that change is possible.

 

2. Say No to “Humanitarian Intervention”: In the debate on Democracy Now! Reed Brody cited R2P: “You know, the countries of the world, in 2005, all the countries at the General Assembly, agreed that there were certain circumstances that invoked what they called the right to protect, when it may be necessary for the international community even to use force. And that’s the lesson of Srebrenica. It’s the lesson of Rwanda.”

You should not trust anyone who is a professional human rights worker when they cite R2P and cannot even get the name right. “R2P” stands for “Responsibility to Protect”. Brody’s mistake, however, is perfectly symptomatic. For Western interventionists it is seen as a “right”, and indeed their discourse would have people believe that “R2P” was some sort of international enabling act. The way R2P is discussed creates an impression that if human rights abuses have been detected, the US or NATO can simply decide for themselves if they feel like abrogating the sovereignty of another country and using whatever force they claim to be necessary – as if they had never harmed people while claiming to be acting for their own good in the past.

This idea of R2P that is widely propounded in the public discourse is a complete distortion. The UN measure from 2005 is a norm which must be in compliance with international law. More specifically, it does not in any way supersede the UN Charter and licence any action outside of the normal framework for legal intervention. That means that, given that immediate self-defence is not an issue, no military action can be taken under R2P without UN Security Council authorisation.

On the subject of distortions and nonsense – I may not be an expert on Rwanda, but I have written on the subject and I know that people are hideously misled by the popular narrative. Not only was the US instrumental in creating the conditions which spiralled into a bloodbath, but the US also blocked others who wished to intervene to prevent the genocide. Even if they could not have foreseen the full extent of the horror that was to unfold, the US intervened recklessly without concern for innocent victims and now it has the gall to say that the resultant genocide shows that it should intervene more often. Brody citing Rwanda and Srebrenica is a facile cliché and it is manipulative. These events are simply meant to symbolise savage-horrors-that-the-West-should-have-prevented, provoking emotion without thought.

 

3. Do No Harm!: For organisations like HRW to ever become functional promoters of human rights they must actively ensure that none of their actions cause serious harm to people. That means that they cannot side with the powerful against the weak. People working in HRW must be alert to the actions of their leadership and be prepared to resist any distortions of emphasis liable to lead to co-optation by Western interventionists.

Reed Brody is quite right about one thing, the HRW website is full of criticisms of the US and its clients in poorer states. Anything that suggests that such a rampant human rights abuser has a role in preventing human rights abuses by weaker regimes must be viewed with suspicion.

When you consider the US role in human rights abuses in Chile, Indonesia, Argentina, Guatemala, Iran, South Africa and so forth; and then you add its interventions in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere; and then you add its wars in Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan; you quickly see that the US is in a league of its own as a human rights abuser. Moreover, if you also consider that it played a crucial aggravating role in Rwanda and Cambodia and even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, you begin to wonder about the schizophrenic nature of the discourse of human rights altogether. Every time a State Department official criticises human rights abuses in a poor unstable or destabilised country, or any other country, it should bring howls of condemnation for its hypocrisy. Even Iran has more authority to talk about human rights than the US and we would never let them condemn others without, quite rightly, including references to their own failings.

The US is a ruthless global hegemon. It is a prolific human rights abuser because of its global reach, but by the same token its global power is a function of an interventionism which is inevitably contrary to the human rights of those in targeted states. Even though other regimes share responsibility for some of its crimes, and others are guilty of their own, it has no real competition for title of greatest human rights abuser. This is an ever-present reality and unavoidably pertinent context of global human rights concerns. HRW must rid itself of the cognitive dissonance that it promotes by seemingly forgetting this whenever there is evidence that an enemy of the West has committed human rights abuses. It cannot ever, ever be seen to be in agreement with the US whatever the circumstances and should always make references to the human rights abuses of the US when the US government is a topic of discussion.

HRW must concentrate its efforts on the human rights abuses of the most powerful states, starting with the US. It must also exercise the greatest vigilance over intelligence claiming condemnable acts by weak and insecure states, especially where those states are governed by regimes considered inimical by the West.

Above all, HRW must reconcile itself to the limitations of its role. It is self-evidently seductive to take evidence of wrongdoing to powerful actors to get them to take robust immediate action. That way you might really feel that you are making a real difference. But people killed by hellfire missiles are just as dead as those killed by barrel bombs and anyone who acts to legitimise the former killings by condemning the latter is an accomplice in the crime.

HRW can record human rights abuses and raise awareness among populations who can oppose the actions of their own governments and render solidarity and support to victims and dissidents in other countries. At the same time, however, HRW must actively reject providing even tacit support for state actions outside of the framework of the UN Charter and must be extremely discriminating when supporting state intervention under the Charter. [Under the letter of the law the sanctions imposed on Iraq were according to the UN Charter, but they were also one of the most appalling and deadly criminal acts of our times and contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and parts of International Humanitarian Law such as the prohibition on collective punishment in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.]

HRW must do more than simply reject the careerism of those who move in powerful circles, it must become an active and consistent opponent of empire. To be independent it must always, and at every opportunity, overtly reject working with Western state power. People within HRW must search within themselves. They must look at the greater picture of violence and suffering in the world and ask where the ultimate sources are. They must protest collaboration and demand change. If necessary, they must become like the IVS volunteers in Viet Nam who chose to stop doing good in order to stop promoting far greater harm.

Drone Hypocrisy: The Toxic Self-regard of the 5% and the Dangerous US Constitution Fetish

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Original image:Attribution Some rights reserved by Tjebbe van Tijen / Imaginary Museum Projects (updated by myself)

Many in the US are up in arms over the fact that Eric Holder has not rejected the President’s use of lethal force against US citizens on US soil, but what are the implications of the outrage shown by “progressives” in the US? Why is it so natural for US citizens to privilege themselves and their lives over the lives of others? Where is the shame of those who claim to oppose US militarism but devote their greatest passion and attention to a minuscule or non-existent threat to themselves?

On a personal level, it is sad for me to find people I normally admire among those reacting in shock and horror to the fact that there is a hypothetical outside chance that they may be killed in the same manner that the US employs to kill lesser beings on a regular basis. Sometimes I actually feel betrayed by people from the US, including some I know personally, who reveal that deep down they see foreigners like myself and my family and friends as having lives worth less than theirs. This was how I reacted in a comment when TomDispatch posted an article of this type on their facebook page: “What about all the people outside of the US? Are you all so jaded and selfish and despicable that you only care about whether they can get you when you are drinking coffee in Boston? Why do you have no shame about this? What do you think it looks like for those outside the US to constantly have our noses rubbed into the fact that you think your government that YOU voted for can kill us, but bleat on so much about the fact that they might be able to kill you? At least you can do something about it. Why is it breaking news that Obama (in “extraordinary circumstances”) can kill 5% of the population when 95% can be killed without even being identified personally. Just wiped out like insects, and you endorse that every fucking time you privilege your concern for US citizens over others – and now its US citizens on US soil that are more important than everyone else. This sickens me.”

Of course, the fact that people from the US endorsed my comment made me feel much better about life in general. I am quite happy to view US politicians as evil hell-spawn, but I tend to think that US people, like all people, are basically good. On the other hand, though, that leaves me to explain why some who devote a lot of themselves to opposing US imperial injustices, including drone strikes, should let themselves down so badly. Joining in the hysteria and hype over the Holder letter is unacceptable, and here is why.

First, divide the world into the “5%” (US citizens) and the “95%” (others). We already knew that the baseline of USG policy is that the executive branch can kill whomever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants based on secret applications of secret legal rationalisations using secret evidence. So far the application of this when using UAVs to kill people has seen 5 US citizens killed. In contrast, the figure of 4700 killed in total has been acknowledged by Sen. Lindsay Graham and that must be excluding those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 95% are simply at a far, far higher risk than the 5%. This is acutely so in countries or regions where US destabilisation has destroyed the functioning of governments, or where governments are in some other way unable to protect their citizens from US violence. The figure of those killed on US soil, by the way, is 0. So the actual figures would suggest that Rand Paul’s dramatic image of someone being incinerated by a hellfire missile when drinking a coffee in Boston might be overdrawn. But it is so much worse than that. People in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and an ever increasing number of other places are really being incinerated when they sit down to have coffee with friends. I understand that Paul opposes the killing of those people too, but why bring up the unlikely hypothetical example when the reality is right there?

Attorney General Eric Holder responded to Sen. Paul with a letter. This letter confirms the privilege accorded to the 5%. The US isn’t going to kill people on US soil because “well-established law enforcement” obviates the necessity. One reading of this is that there was no need for White House involvement in Fred Hampton’s killing, or the MOVE bombing, while administration involvement in the Waco siege would now be unnecessary altogether (as with Christopher Dorner’s demise). US law enforcement killed at minimum an average of one person every 15 hours in 2012. Carrying out covert targeted killings in the milieu of such deadly and militarised policing seems far more logical than using drones. In other words, the US can rely on “law enforcement” to kill people when desirable, which also calls into question the point of Rand Paul’s fatuous question. As always, however, the implications are far worse for the 95% than for the 5%, but no US “progressives” seem to care. The 5% talk of the “chilling effect” of various repressive authoritarian government behaviours on their own society, but imagine the chilling effect that this might have on, say, Iceland – a country that recently deported FBI agents. This is a reiteration to the world that non-compliance with US law enforcement in its hunt for political dissidents may cause the US to take unilateral action, possibly lethal, without regard for sovereignty nor for international law.

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A fairly constant theme of the aghast is the horror of an attack on the Constitution. The basis of this, however, is an unhealthy and historically untenable vision of a mythic Constitution carved in granite and handed down from on high through the agency of semi-divine authorities known as “founding fathers”. But the aspects of the US Constitution that we today tend to admire the most came originally from being forced on the Federalists by anti-Federalists and Jeffersonians, while others were amendments added because of the insistence and agitation of the common people. Not only that, but the application of the Constitution to secure actual meaningful rights for the bulk of the people only tends to occur after people toil, fight and often die to secure them. I’m assuming that the progressives I complain of here (who should know better than to echo the sentiments of not one but several Republican Senators) have read A People’s History of the United States, and are familiar with critiques of Hamilton and Madison. And yet, clearly against their own interests, instead of the people actually taking credit for establishing their own human rights and civil rights through their own power and sacrifice, all to often the discourse is of “constitutional rights”.

Once upon a time, the wise men known as the “founding fathers” gave the US a wise Constitution and the wise men of the US Supreme Court are now tasked with the duty of interpreting it according to “founders intent”. Right? Well, the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the constitution was not originally mandated, but is a self-arrogated power. And they are political appointees. And they dress funny. And, though I may be an ignorant foreigner, no one has actually explained to me why there even is such a creature as a “Justice Scalia”, let alone why he is allowed to hold a responsible position. Altogether, this patriarchal myth is a quasi-religious understanding of the US Constitution (meaning the written document and 27 ratified amendments). But the actual constitution of the federal polity known as the United States of America is much more than can be found in such document. It includes, for example, English Common Law traditions. Moreover, I concluded a previous piece touching on this subject with these words:

This fetishisation of the idolised US Constitution is getting old. Besides which, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article 6, Clause 2) actually gives treaties the same status as federal law – which would include the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Charter, among other things. Furthermore, by allowing the issue to be framed in such a manner, psychologically you set yourself and others up for being mollified by cosmetic measures offered to guarantee the rights of US citizens while retaining the right to kill foreigners at will. Do you really believe that being a US citizen or being born in Denver makes someone more human?”

Since writing that I have come to realise that framing the issues as “Constitutional Rights” restricts and controls the discourse in a way that disempowers people considerably. Not only does all of the credit get given to the authority figures, but it emphasises those liberal rights of freedom from state interference over all else. But these were never even intended to be the rights of the poor, nor of women, nor the indigenous people, nor slaves. It is the English Whig tradition which had much to do with protecting privilege in the form of property, and little to do with universal notions of rights despite its pretensions. It would be preferable not to view this issue through the lens of the constitution at all, but rather through the lens of universal human rights. Or even better, targeted killings should be framed as violations of international law or criminal law. You don’t normally have to go to the supreme court to establish that a murder victim had a right to life under the US constitution, but it is accepted that the POTUS can murder whatever foreigner he wants because no one has yet established their constitutional right not to be murdered.

Of course, the Bill of Rights does not say at any stage that it is restricted to US citizens…

“…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….”

ADDENDUM – from a bit later.

I wrote a response to a comment which I feel may be superior to the actual article above. Becuase of this, and since the embedded videos did not come through on the comment, I am reprinting it here:

The inaptness of your analogies reveals the degree to which you are blinded to the reality and the extent to which you will fight to keep your own chains of mental slavery. People in other states do not automatically lack empathy in exactly the manner which you suggest. Distance does lessen empathy, and many other societies also dehumanise poorer peoples, traditional enemies, or those considered inferior due to culture, ethnicity, religion or race. However, the vast disparity in the way life is valued by those in the US, and the overtness of it, and the prominence of its repetition are without contemporary parallels. Chauvinism is a matter of degree, an the US is at the extreme end. It may not be alone in this, but it is alone in marrying this chauvinist patriotism (this exceptionalism) with a virulent militarism; and a military capacity beyond anything known to history; and an imperialist interventionism which brought about many millions of deaths.

To illustrate, let me use your first example of Nigerians and Canadians. If the Nigerian government had an assassination programme killing thousands of Canadians using missiles and refusing to give details of its justifications. A handful of Nigerians on Canadian soil had been killed and though many Nigerians opposed all such killings, much more mainstream public attention is devoted to those handful of Nigerians. The Nigerian victims generate several times more questions in Parliament, and 5- or 10-fold as many mainstream media mentions and editorial condemnations. And then, someone brings up the prospect that the Nigerian government might extend the programme to Nigerians on Nigerian soil. There is no ongoing programme to do so, like the ongoing assassination programme in Canada. There are no plans to do so. And an assassination of this type, using missiles to kill someone in Nigeria would lead to riots and the fall of the government. Yet somehow, in the mainstream discourse, this is what the Nigerians care most about, and even those who oppose the ongoing slaughter of Canadians join them in their cries of horror – because this barely hypothetical possibility, this empty signifier, this big fat nothing of no news at all, is taken as a sign of the dissolution of traditional Nigerian rights. Yeah, the cops can gun Nigerians down in the streets at will, but to kill them the same way you would kill a Canadian – what horror is this!

I’ll tell you how the world would react to this alternative world Nigeria, shall I? Nigeria would be an absolute pariah state. The Nigerian people would be viewed by most of the world with hostility, fear, suspicion and/or disgust. A rare few would pity them. The BBC and Al Jazeera English would compete to see who could make the most smug and pompous documentary about how the Nigerian Dream had turned into a poisonous sludge of fascistic nationalism, narrow-minded ignorance and violent xenophobia. The moderate Nigerians would object that that isn’t the real Nigeria, but the BBC and AJE microphones would be pointed at those other ones – the ones who say that all Canadians should be killed; the one’s who say that if they attack Nigerians again we should nuke them to show we mean business; and the ones who say that Canadians are Gods wrathful vengeance wreaked on Nigeria for straying from the path of righteousness. That is how we would see these Nigerians, even the ones that don’t say the mad things out loud must believe them inside because otherwise why would they continue to support valuing Nigerian lives over those of the victims of their own government. But what the Nigerians don’t understand is that those who are making monsters of them are also making fools of them.

I do not hold US citizens morally culpable for what their government does, nor even for their inhumane form of patriotism. It is the same as with the Germans of the Third Reich. On a purely intellectual level the claims of not knowing the basics of Nazi mass atrocities were untrue. The German people did know that their government was committing mass murder, but they were not the irrational Jew-hating monsters that Daniel Goldhagen would have people believe .They had systematically been indoctrinated and manipulated into a state of moral anaesthesia and psychological denial. Clear signals which should have let the Germans know immediately that their government was irredeemably monstrous were stripped of their real meaning – their ethical and moral significance. A seminal book about the creation of the national German consciousness by the Nazis was called They Thought They Were Free, here’s an extract:

But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

Such was the German belief in German freedom, that part of their strategic calculation, and a widely held belief, was that Soviet soldiers would not put up much of a fight because, unlike Germans, they were unfree and thus deprived of initiative and sapped of will. You might well be thinking – ah, but this is exactly why we in the US must guard our constitutional rights, so that we guard our fundamental freedoms. But you are not guarding any real freedoms at all. You are just like those Germans. You have been led and manipulated, through your own excessive pride and self-importance, to fight for the meaningless fetish of a piece of paper while tyranny and rot spread throughout the entire regime from top to bottom. If you want to see the ugly militarist face of Western society, look at the excitement over the technology of death when a new war is launched. But if you want to see why the US slips into a different category, why the US looks more fascist than its allies, look at the celebrations of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Look at last year’s political conventions when if there was the slightest hint of protest or dissent the crowd around the protestor, without external direction, would begin chanting “U S A! U S A!” like hundreds of little kid blocking their ears and going “lalalalala I can’t here you”, but much, much scarier. What would you think if Mexicans started doing that at political rallies? Maybe you think it’s perfectly normal to do that and keep shouting “we’re number one!”, but no one else does it.

So they keep you on this track of patriotic rubbish and actually draw out and amplify the hypocritical and callous aspects of nationalism to make you accept the unacceptable. I have a good historical example, which has some currency at the moment thanks to Ritchie Cunningham. I love Arrested Development and I was brought up firm in the faith of Monty Python. Without David Frost there would never have been a Monty Python, yet I still consider him to be one of the most loathsome creatures ever to have slithered on the face of this Earth. Without Ron Howard there would have been no Arrested Development and though I doubt that Howard is as much of a scumbag as Frost, he nevertheless replicated quite faithfully Frost greatest crime against humanity. In a very famous series of interviews Frost talked to Richard Nixon (and Howard made a movie with the same punchline). Frost let Nixon rewrite history over and over again over many many hours of interviewing. He was not challenged on his crimes against humanity and his war crimes at all, but was able to contextualise all of his actions in his own apologetics without the slightest hint that he was a mass murderer responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Cambodia alone (just the top of a very long list of serious crimes). Towards the end there came a dramatic breakthrough, which to my mind was clearly a pre-ordained and staged breakthrough. Nixon, under suddenly dogged interrogation, finally broke down and admitted to something. Voice utterly laden with sombre reluctance (really very overacted if you actually listen to it critically) Nixon admitted to lying and that he had “let the American people down”. In a horrible way, this was genius propaganda. The people of the US could suddenly feel like they were the real victims.

Well, this sort of propaganda is fundamental to everything now, especially under Obama. Not all of it appeals to pride, vanity, selfishness and fear. The US regime has become very good and harnessing far more positive energies into meaningless empty nonsense or, sometimes, things that are very important on a human level but ultimately pose no challenge to the structural status quo. Among these are greenwashing, gaywashing and femiwashing. These can have real effects on people’s lives, but above all they feed myths of US freedom and a higher level of development.

When you act like your Constitution is some divine idol to be worshipped, one which makes you society superior to those poor benighted nations that do not have this shining fount of justice; and when any of you decides to privilege concern for US life over the life of others; and whenever you have the gall to say that others do the same, you feed the regime that oppresses you. If you are going to be selfish, you might as well be more enlightened about it.

The Cambodia Precedent: Justifying New Crimes on the Basis of Past Crimes

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For John Kerry the incoming Secretary of State, the bombing of Cambodia by the US was illegal. But, even as Kerry reaffirms his condemnation of US actions in Cambodia, it comes to light that in June his colleagues in the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees were issued a white paper from the Department of Justice which claimed US intervention in Cambodia as being a legal precedent for the administrations use of targeted killings using drone strikes. In fact, “legal precedent” might be too strong a term, because what is actually cited is an address given by legal counsel to the State Department to a legal forum. Yes, they are using a speech rather than an adjudication as a claim of precedence, much as one might in some future time quote John Yoo as the legal precedent for a systematic programme of child torture by testicular crushing. On the other hand, the carpet bombing of Cambodia was one of the most brutal and notorious war crimes of the post-WWII era and not only has no one been prosecuted for the crime, but the principle perpetrator was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later – perhaps this is exactly the sort of precedent that the Obama administration looks towards.

With all of that in mind, it is worth revisiting exactly what the US did to the people of Cambodia. Then we can understand exactly what sort of moral precedent applies here – the sort that would make almost any organised crime boss, or terrorist, or psychopathic serial killer blanch with horrified disgust. If you think I’m exaggerating, read on.

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In 2007 Barack Obama said: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” In questioning John Kerry about Obama’s departure from that principle in Libya, Rand Paul elicited from Kerry, a reaffirmation that he, Kerry, still believed that the bombing of Cambodia was illegal. One might wonder, then, whether Obama’s new Secretary of State is going to oppose his famous “drone” assassination programme. I broach the subject because the Department of Justice rationalised the use of deadly force in other sovereign territories citing Cambodia as a precedent. This is an excerpt from their recently released White paper:

The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new nation, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict, and thus subject to the laws of war governing that conflict, unless the hostilities become sufficiently intense and protracted in the new location. That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict. See John R. Stevenson, Legal Adviser, Department of State, United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law, Address before the Hammarskjold Forum of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (May 28,1970)…, (arguing that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state).

Now, let me start off by saying something absolutely clearly. The idea that the US can legally engage in a programme of assassinations using hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles is a patent falsehood – a complete joke – a non-starter – a parody – a stupid idea that no one should take seriously. A single ad hoc emergency strike might be justified as self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, but a programme cannot be as self-defence because, under the charter, it can only be applied to imminent threats. This aspect of law isn’t rocket science, nor hidden within some mystical realm of legalese. The standard legal textbook dealing with this subject is Yoram Dinstein’s, War, Aggression and Self-Defense, now in its 4th edition. It is a pretty straightforward book (and I’m no lawyer) and on this particular subject it is so unequivocal that it is impossible that any superior authority might find some crucial flaw which would invalidate Dinstein. The reason it is so unequivocal is that the US arguments have already been ruled against by no lesser body than the International Court of Justice. The reason for this is that the US has already deployed almost the exact same reasoning to justify its actions against Nicaragua.

On Nicaragua v. United States of America, the ICJ ruled “By twelve votes to three, Rejects the justification of collective self-defence maintained by the United States of America in connection with the military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua the subject of this case; …. By twelve votes to three, Decides that the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State….” And goes on to add other grounds of violation, including a similar finding against the US mining of Nicaragua’s main port. Dinstein explores the US self-defence claims and notes that although self-defence was ruled out on other grounds this did not prevent judges from further noting that the three requisite conditions of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality were also unsustainable.1

In the Nicaragua case, as now, the US argued that conditions of immediacy, necessity and proportionality were met, but then, as now, these are just empty words disproved by the simplest of geographical facts. Such claims are even further disproved by publicly available details of the US assassination programme, such as the use of “signature strikes” and the use of “double tap” follow up strikes. These practices demolish self-defence arguments even as they raise further questions about breaches of International Humanitarian Law (such as the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949)) and International Human Rights Law (such as Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which affirms “the right to life, liberty and security of person”).

So, how much does citing US actions in Cambodia strengthen the feeble claims of legal rationale for drone strikes? I would say somewhat less than not at all, partly because US military actions in Cambodia were clearly not legal and partly because they too failed the test of self-defence (hence arguably being crimes against the peace) but they were also gross breaches of International Humanitarian Law, and should be classified as genocide – which is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity

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When people think of genocide and Cambodia, they tend to think of the Khmer Rouge, and the “Killing Fields”; of their evidently insane Democratic Kampuchea regime which began its “Year Zero” in 1975. But a Finnish Inquiry Commission designated the years 1969 to 1975 in Cambodia (a time of massive aerial bombardment by the US and of bitter civil war wholly sustained by the US) as Phase 1 of the ‘Decade of Genocide’.2Estimates of Cambodian deaths resulting from the 1969-75 war range from Vickery’s 500,000 killed3 to a credible 1 million excess deaths estimated by Sorpong Peou.4 Given that the Cambodian population was an estimated 6 or 7 million in the period of the Second Indochina War, this gives us a figure of between 1 in 6 and 1 in 14 of all Cambodians killed.

US actions inside Cambodian borders began years before the devastating carpet bombing. The US ‘Studies and Operations Group’ conducted attacks with US Special Forces personnel in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. In 1967 these were institutionalised as “Salem House” (later known as “Daniel Boone”). This programme was kept secret from the US congress and conducted a total of 1,835 missions. Their primary activity appears to have been the laying of “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines anywhere up to 30 kilometres beyond the border. Their supposed mission was intelligence gathering, but throughout the whole programme they only captured 24 prisoners.5 The Special Forces troops usually disguised themselves as Vietnamese PLAF fighters and sometimes murdered civilians in false-flag operations.6

In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol7 and Prince Sirik Matak with tacit support from Washington and probable assistance by the CIA. Washington recognised the new regime within hours.8 So fast was recognition of Lon Nol’s government that it must have precluded any possibility that the changes on the ground were being assessed, which strongly suggests that the US must have had detailed foreknowledge in order to have any confidence in its judgement. Sihanouk’s overthrow made civil war unavoidable.

In 1969, before the above events, the US began bombing Cambodia in what was known as “Operation Menu”. From Saigon, US General Creighton Abrams insisted that he had “hard evidence” that the Central Office for South Vietnam headquarters (COSVN HQ) had been located in the “Fish Hook” salient of Cambodia.9 The problem was that no such place ever existed, though for years the US had mounted operations to crush it when they claimed it was located in South Vietnam.10 Once under way, Operation Menu spread to other areas. Despite the carpet bombing of area supposed to contain COVSN HQ, in April 1970 Abrams claimed that the headquarters still existed as a fortified underground bunker with 5000 personnel.11 In May US and RVN forces invaded Cambodia, the action justified in part as an attempt, yet again, to wipe out the COVSN HQ “which had become the Holy Grail of the American war”.12 The US/RVN invasion simply, and predictably, drove communist forces deeper into Cambodia.13

It is a known and predictable effect that the killing of civilians drives people to take up arms, it is a “counterproductive” counter-insurgency tactic which actually strengthens the enemy.14 It is worth remembering that the famous maverick US Army officer John Paul Vann made the same observation in 1962.15One of the most striking examples of generating an enemy by killing civilians, is what occurred in Cambodia from 1969 onwards. Ben Kiernan repeatedly cites evidence in numerous consecutive instances that US/RVN aerial bombardment strengthened the Khmer Rouge insurgency, and, more specifically the anti-Vietnamese faction of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.16 In 1969, the Khmer Rouge consisted of perhaps 4000 – an ultimately unthreatening insurgency. By the end of 1972, they were able, with DRV logistical support, to “hold their own” against Lon Nol’s armed forces, which, at US instigation, had been enlarged to between 132,000 and 176,000 (not counting “ghost” soldiers, who existed only on the books of the corrupt officers who collected their pay) and had massive US/RVN air support.17 In William Shawcross’s words, “the new war was creating enemies where none previously existed”18 and by this stage, Lon Nol’s regime was already reduced to the control of shrinking and fragmenting enclaves.19

When the the US generated a war in Cambodia they had already had a great deal of experience in Vietnam and Laos, and what occurred in Cambodia is, in many ways, a naked exposure of the logic behind the genocidal war system, less obfuscated because, ironically, Cambodia was a “sideshow” where it was not the details but the whole war which was kept obscure from the public.

Within a year of Lon Nol’s coup, as mentioned, the economy of Cambodia was virtually destroyed, not only by bombing, but also by US aid. Aid was channelled to the import of commodities and surplus US agricultural goods. It also underwrote the Cambodian government and armed forces: “By the end of 1970, the government was spending five times its revenue and earning nothing abroad.”20 Most of the population became reliant on US aid to eat, and rice supplies were kept at the minimum level needed to prevent food riots. By 1975, malnutrition was widespread and many children starved to death.21

Going back in time to 1970, less than two months after the coup that brought Lon Nol to power, the US invaded Cambodia, along with ARVN forces. They did not bother to forewarn Lon Nol who found out after Richard Nixon had announced the invasion publicly.22 This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of around half of the Cambodian population.23Lon Nol was outraged by the invasion and when later briefed by Alexander Haig (then military assistant to Kissinger) about US intentions he wept with frustration. According to Shawcross, “He wished that the Americans had blocked the communists’ escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia. … The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. … [Haig] informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces…. They would be withdrawn at the end of June. The the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted military and economic aid. As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep. Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself.”24

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As has been detailed, US actions, particularly in bombing, were directly responsible for creating the communist enemy which overthrew Lon Nol. The bombing between 1969 and 1973 took up to 150,000 lives.25 If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.26 Despite the fact that Vietnamese pilots bombed any Cambodian they could, which aided only the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol acceded to a US demand that he request an increase in VNAF bombing in 1971.27 By May 1972, the Lon Nol regime had control of perhaps 10 per cent of the country and continued to lose territory which was thereafter fragmented into ever smaller enclaves.28 The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million deaths occurring after that point.

In 1970, when Henry Kissinger briefed Jonathan “Fred” Ladd, who was slated to conduct the war in Cambodia, he told him, “Don’t even think of victory; just keep it alive.”29 The point of the US bombing was not to win a military victory – it was to destroy Cambodia as part of an Indochina “exit strategy” – and that is a clear instance of genocide under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam, it was with the belated realisation that such aid would not give any hope of victory or improve a bargaining position. Senator Mike Mansfield spoke out, “Ultimately Cambodia cannot survive…. Additional aid means more killing, more fighting. This has got to stop sometime.”30

So that was the end of the US involvement in Cambodia, and their legal culpability. The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, and the refugees were shocked to see that the black-clad cadres were mostly young teens, fanatical and brutalised by half a young lifetime of fighting and death. The US was not responsible for the fantasies of the Pol Pot clique, who believed that supernatural amounts of food could be produced without recourse to machine power, nor for their refusal to accept aid. But the US had deliberately brought the Cambodian population to the brink of starvation – destroying farmland and driving peasants off the land. Perhaps 500,000 or more died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands were executed for political or ideological reasons, murdered by the Khmer Rouge who the US had largely brought into existence. And when the Vietnamese put the regime to an end (and despite what you may read about this being justifiable as “humanitarian intervention” it was in fact legitimate self-defence – if you don’t believe me you can read about Khmer Rouge foreign policy, border attacks, and espoused official desire to exterminate all Vietnamese) when the Khmer Rouge were supplanted, the US insisted that they retain a seat at the UN and started giving aid to their guerilla forces.

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So, do I think that the Cambodia precedent is a good one to justify an assassination programme? No, I do not. But then again I am not from the US, and perhaps I am failing to grasp the subtle point that next to no “Americans” died in Cambodia (none that were officially acknowledged) therefore it did not happen. I don’t want to be offensive, but if they do not wish to be complicit with the crimes of the US regime, US anti-drone campaigners must avoid all trace of exceptionalism. I am sure they mean no harm, but why allow yourselves to be drawn into this ridiculous framework of seeing the drone programme as being primarily a question of “the targeting of Americans without due process.” There have been 5 US citizens killed with US drones whereas at least 4000 non-US citizens have been killed. Why would anyone, in those circumstances, give primacy to concern over “US citizens” and “due process”? This fetishisation of the idolised US Constitution is getting old. Besides which, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article 6, Clause 2) actually gives treaties the same status as federal law – which would include the Nuremberg Charter and the UN Charter, among other things. Furthermore, by allowing the issue to be framed in such a manner, psychologically you set yourself and others up for being mollified by cosmetic measures offered to guarantee the rights of US citizens while retaining the right to kill foreigners at will. Do you really believe that being a US citizen or being born in Denver makes someone more human?

1 Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (3rd ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp 184-5.

2 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage, 1994 (1988), p 260.

3 Ibid, p 263.

4 Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 54.

5 Ibid, pp 64-5.

6 Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 18.

7 The US had developed ties with Lon Nol in the 1950s and by 1970, according to CIA officer Frank Snepp, he was one of two candidates being groomed by the CIA to take Sihanouk’s place (William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), pp 114-5).

8 Ibid, pp 114-23; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004, pp 137-8; Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, pp 125-6.

9 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 19.

10 Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991, pp 72, 186; Tucker, Vietnam, p 129; Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp 79-80.

11 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 140.

12 Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 245.

13 Shawcross, 1979, p 151.

14 David Keen, Endless War? Hidden functions of the ‘War on Terror’. London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006, pp 58-61.

15 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage 1989 (1988), p pp 106-111.

16 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, pp 19-23. Also see Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 128.

17 Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 73, 180, 194-5, 261.

18 Ibid, p 249.

19 Ibid, p 254.

20 Ibid, p 220.

21 Ibid, p 317-9.

22 Ibid, p 149.

23 Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia , p 127.

24 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.

25 Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 24.

26 Ibid, p 19.

27 Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.

28 Ibid, pp 254-5.

29 Ibid, p 169.

30 Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213.

Is Obama Really Batman?

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You can be excused just about anything if you’re a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions. – Terry Pratchett.

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There are many ways in which various incarnations of Batman have appealed to people over the years, but central is the trope of counterterror – the revenge fantasy of the impotent. You see, Batman has superhuman powers. Yes, I am aware that the authors make it very clear that he does not have superhuman powers, but then they depict him doing things which are beyond human capabilities – hence he actually has superhuman powers. Using his super powers he brings fear to those who inflict fear. He is the victim who has become the righteous assailant. But there is a little bit of a problem here – if the “hero” is a violent nutcase with an odd costume fetish, why would we trust his moral compass? Why would we rely on his literally self-righteous narrative? In the same vein, why should we take Obama’s word that he has to kill people to prevent terrorism when the alleged terrorists cause much less terror and death than Obama? It turns out that people tolerate Obama because he seems to face an evil more unspeakable, more terrible, and yet more outrageous and comical than any evil known to history. It is not al-Qaeda, nor is it Kim Jong Un. It is the same evil that Batman faces.

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Nerd Rage Revenge Fantasy

There is reassurance in the idea of a powerful paternal figure that protects. But when you have been bullied; when you have been made to feel helpless, weak and scared; when your delusions of potency are shattered, maybe you want more than reassurance – maybe you want VENGEANCE. The tables must be turned. The tormentor must become the tormented. You don’t need a father figure anymore, you need a you figure. But an empowered you, a superhuman you, a terrifying you. You need the superhuman powers because you face a superhuman threat – the villains.

The villains are given superhuman power by the scary demon mask which is given to them by magic storytellers known as the corporate media. They terrorise. The mask they wear is the horror mask of primal and basic fear. Criminals and terrorists are not represented as human beings but as crime and terror made flesh. You cannot reason with them. You cannot even buy their forbearance. They will take your money and kill you anyway – because they are driven to kill. There are no ways of mediating or ameliorating the risk of becoming a victim. You hide behind locks, gates and guards, and you cheer for the preventive violence of vigilantes in or out of uniform.

If you are thinking that they take the horror villain mask from the fictional murderer of Hollywood and place it on the real murderers of the evening news, you would only be partly right. The horror mask is used, of course, but there are no “real” murderers on the evening news. Instead of a human being the news media version of a murderer is a cypher, a vehicle for the urge to kill, murder itself embodied and made flesh. They are even less real than their fictional Hollywood counterparts and it is the same when the murderers are “terrorists”. Proof of the unreality is in the irrelevance of actual guilt. The Central Park Five wore the horror mask, as did Damien Echols, and many other innocents such as those imprisoned and tortured in Guantánamo. These are all fictional unreal murderers and terrorists (despite the fact that they correspond to actual real people) who epitomise murder and terror. Their alien nature, their irrationality, their opacity all make them much greater sources of fear. But then there is the intriguing thought that one can also fight terror with terror.

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Enter the Batman!

The nature of Batman is such that he takes the terror felt by the public and projects it back at the supposed source of their terror. No, he doesn’t go around scaring the crap out of studio owners and heads of news departments, that would be too sensible. He terrorises the “baddies”, and a central part of the canonical backstory is that he too is a victim, having seen his parents senselessly gunned down as a child. The fear makes everyone a victim, and he is the victim granted the power to fight back.

Out of the dark, just as the tattoed thug is in the act of terrorising (his victim usually a woman), a dark figure drops from above. The tables are turned – the terroriser is now the terrorised – a highly gendered process in which the “bad guy” suddenly develops a very high pitched squeaky voice which is decidedly girly. Usually there is also some sort of phallic kerfuffle occuring – the bad guy’s pistol droops impotently, or Batman’s weapon is bigger, or disarmament is shown as symbolic castration. All good family fun.

This all occurs in exactly the same way in the world of Obama. The discourse of terrorism is one of the horror mask beneath which is the simplistic fiction of cardboard-cutout evil. Terrorists, like violent urban criminals, are animated by innate animus – a pure and unadulterated hatred. They hate our freedoms, we were told, and Obama has done almost nothing but reinforce that notion. Terrorists are killing machines. It is in their nature. You cannot negotiate with terrorists because they are all irrational fanatics. And so, like the urban criminals, the only choice is to incapacitate or eliminate them. As Prince Harry put it: “If there’s people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we’ll take them out of the game.” (He didn’t preface the comment with “Holy Playstation Batman!”, but he might well have, because the UK really does good line in being sidekick to a deranged vigilante).

The fear of the terrorist or criminal actually relies on the deliberate omission of any hint of rational motive or circumstantial cause. There is “no negotiating with terrorists”. The only admissable response is the response of the strongman, the Obataman who fights terror with terror. Otherwise people might think that all of this counterterror stuff (which actually creates more terrorists than it kills) is really about deliberately sowing instability and strife in order maintain a US strategic predominance which is, in fact, counter to the interests of the US people (but pretty good if you happen to be ExxonMobil).

Is the analogy with Batman a fair one? To be strictly honest, while Dick Cheney rather overtly embraced what he himself described as “the dark side”, Obama is in a sense more discreet than Cheney or Batman. Part of the appeal of the use of drones is that it seems clinical and detached. Obama specifically claimed “very few” civilian casualties from “very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates” in a programme that is “kept on a very tight leash.” So it seems like a programme that just gets “the worst of the worst”. Just like Guantánamo. The frequency of the drone strikes just goes to show how serious the threats to the US are. It also reveals the vigilance of the intelligence forces who strike at every credible threat as soon as it is detected. It is a bit like a whack-a-mole game. The public can be very reassured by the frequency of lethal action without having to ask themselves irrelevant questions such as: who?; where?; how old?; or, how can some impoverished person from one of the most undeveloped regions of the planet pose a credible threat against a country that spends such obscene amounts on “defense” and “homeland security”?

On the other hand, to give Batman his due, despite his broody wierdness and silly voice, he usually resists the temptation to actually murder people, and he doesn’t kill children at all. Obama, by contrast, murders children on a very regular basis, which is not a normal part of the “hero” job description.

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The Credibility Problem

Batman and Obama do share a certain fundamental problem, and their propagandists resolve this problem in the same manner. In the final analysis, Batman is an extremely emotionally disturbed vigilante who dresses up as a bat. Yes, this is obvious, and he is a superhero (sort of) but he dresses up as a bat to fight crime. That’s pretty loopy. Likewise, Obama is a serial murderer and war criminal. It might be difficult for people to grasp this at first, but many political leaders in the world are not murderers or war criminals. I know that seems completely mad, but it is true. Heaps and heaps of world leaders don’t even have assasination programmes!

Obama and Batman each have a kind of lame excuse. In the case of Batman it is that while he is actually a bit mad, he almost always has certain internal constraints on his behaviour. It isn’t that comforting really. It is a little like claiming that a sexually motivated burglar who likes to sniff underwear and watch people sleeping is actually alright because, out of hundreds of break-ins, the perpetrator has only sexually assaulted a sleeping victim on a couple of occasions. Similarly, Obama assures us that the people he murders aren’t really murdered, because he has some lawyers who have written down some very important legal words which explain exactly why it is not actually murder but perfectly legal killing and we would be able to see these very important words but they have to be secret because of security. This is nothing more than a sophisticated Third Millenium version of the Nixon defence (if the President does it, it must be legal). These first-line excuses would not protect Obama and Batman from the derision, condemnation and legal proceedings they so richly deserve, but they are supplemented by something far more powerful – flattering contrasts.

How do you make a violent mentally disturbed vigilante in an outrageous costume seem morally acceptable? By pitting him against villains who are even more violent, more mentally disturbed, and more outrageously costumed. Yes, I’m talking about people like Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck. You might ask, what about Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and the new kid on the block, Mokhtar Belmokhtar? They are all very well, but for all of their rather suspiciously excessive and picturesque fiendishness, eventually people start to notice that they kill a lot less people than the “good guys”. That is one of the reasons why Bush kept sliding in the polls, eventually even the most brainwashed had to notice that he had lost the moral high ground (and the only excuse that he ever had for pursuing a very criminal foreign policy was to cite moral righteousness). So they had to change from a John Wayne president to a Bruce Wayne president. And you have to admit that Obama seems inherently sane and reasonable when juxtaposed with supervillains like The Newt, Bibi Yahoo, The Enarray, Doctor Romnesia and “Whitey” O’Reilly.

I could probably just start listing completely freakish and weird individuals and groups who position themselves to the right of Obama and it would be a very long list indeed. But you can probably think of a few without my assistance. Obama has managed to seem extremely rational, humane, caring and progressive merely by rejecting some extremely deranged stances taken by his domestic political opponents. Take the Republican primary circus, for example. That was one hell of a freak show and the national convention was a suitably bizzarre coda. And the Republican candidate? A completely unelectable billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, probably because it would show people how he managed to score millions in taxpayer bailout money by holding the government to ransom in 2008 (the deal was legal, just very very immoral, and concealing it may yet land Romney in prison). And yet they managed to make the election into a credible two-horse race, though only with the mainstream media bending over backwards to keep pretending that Romney’s assertions were worthy of report despite 533 documented lies over the space of 30 weeks of campaigning.

The fact is that Obama only has to say the sort of things that a ten-year old kid would say about the day’s issues, and it seems as if he were the only help of salvation in the face of the sort of reactions his opponents evince. Take the issue of mentally ill people massacring children with weapons which are purpose-built for killing people. Obama said: “We’re going to need on making access to mental health at least as easy as access to a gun. We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence.” Those words almost made him sound like a radical, because very powerful voices were saying that the answer to mass shootings was more guns.

Other issues where Obama’s opponents manage to make him look reasonable even when he is being inhumane or criminal include foreign policy and immigration. Obama has deported record numbers of people (400,000 last year) at enormous expense (ICE and Customs and Border enforcement cost at least $19 billion in 2012). Yet, because he says much less callous things than Republicans, he gets a free ride on the issue. Obama presided over 20,000 air strikes in his first term, nearly equal to the number in both Bush Jr. terms. But Romney’s neocon studded team and the Iran War enthusiasts make Obama seem restrained if not dovish. Obama has been steadfast and seemingly obsequious in support of Israel, but the inevitable opposition to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s silly charade of insulted objection, make Obama seem like an “honest broker” (the US has to oppose the illegal settlements, otherwise they could not pretend to support the “peace process” to find a “two-state” solution).

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How Many Jokers?

So there we have it. Batman needs The Joker, otherwise he looks too much like a dangerous lunatic himself. For Obama, one joker is not enough. It takes a whole slew of maniac clowns to make Obama seem alright, and for good reason. Here is a test. Read the list of children killed by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Think about the dead children. (It is an incomplete list. Many victims will never be known.) Then some day when you are in a crowd, picture Obama and think “This guy kills kids. He actually kills children.” Then look at all of the people around you. Do any of them kill children? Not very likely, is it? Normal people don’t kill children. If you found out that one of the people around you had murdered numerous children, how would you react? Now ask yourself, why don’t you react that way to Obama? Isn’t it time to forget about the freakish clowns and see him for what he really is?

Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia | Alternet by Nicolas J.S. Davies

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Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia | Alternet.

Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction From Iraq to Somalia

AlterNet / By Nicolas J.S. Davies

Day after day, U.S. air strikes have conclusively answered the familiar question of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?”

Photo Credit: AFP

Many people around the world are disturbed by U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The illusion that American drones can strike without warning anywhere in the world without placing Americans in harm’s way makes drones dangerously attractive to U.S. officials, even as they fuel the cycle of violence that the “war on terror” falsely promised to end but has instead escalated and sought to normalize. But drone strikes are only the tip of an iceberg, making up less than 10 percent of at least 20,130 air strikes the U.S. has conducted in other countries since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

The U.S. dropped  17,500 bombs during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It conducted  29,200 air strikes during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. air forces conducted at least another  3,900 air strikes in Iraq over the next eight years, before the Iraqi government finally negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces. But that pales next to at least 38,100 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan since 2002, a country already occupied by U.S. and NATO forces, with a government pledged by its U.S. overlords to bring peace and justice to its people.
The Obama administration is responsible for  at least 18,274 air strikes in Afghanistan since 2009, including at least 1,160 by pilotless drones. The U.S. conducted at least 116 air strikes in Iraq in 2009 and about  1,460 of NATO’s 7,700 strikes in Libya in 2011. While the U.S. military does not publish figures on “secret” air and drone strikes in other countries, press reports detail a five-fold increase over Bush’s second term, with at least  303 strikes in Pakistan125 in Yemen and 16 in Somalia.
Aside from the initial bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 and the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq in March and April 2003, the Obama administration has conducted more air strikes day-in day-out than the Bush administration. Bush’s roughly 24,000 air strikes in seven years from 2002 to 2008 amounted to an air strike about every 3 hours, while Obama’s 20,130 in four years add up to one every 1-3/4 hours.
The U.S. government does not advertise these figures, and journalists have largely ignored them. But the bombs and missiles used in these air strikes are powerful weapons designed to inflict damage, death and injury over a wide radius, up to hundreds of feet from their points of impact. The effect of such bombs and shells on actual battlefields, where the victims are military personnel, has always been deadly and gruesome. Many soldiers who lived through shelling and bombing in the First and Second World Wars never recovered from “shell-shock” or what we now call PTSD.
The use of such weapons in America’s current wars, where “the battlefield” is often a euphemism for houses, villages or even urban areas densely populated by civilians, frequently violates otherwise binding rules of international humanitarian law. These include the  Fourth Geneva Convention, signed in 1949 to protect civilians from the worst effects of war and military occupation.
Beginning in 2005, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued quarterly reports on human rights in Iraq. They included details of U.S. air strikes that killed civilians, and UNAMI called on U.S. authorities to fully investigate these incidents.  A UNAMI human rights report published in October 2007 demanded, “that all credible allegations of unlawful killings by MNF (multi-national force) forces be thoroughly, promptly and impartially investigated, and appropriate action taken against military personnel found to have used excessive or indiscriminate force.”
The UN human rights report included a reminder to U.S. military commanders that, “Customary international humanitarian law demands that, as much as possible, military objectives must not be located within areas densely populated by civilians. The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian nature of an area.”
But no Americans have been held criminally accountable for civilian casualties in air strikes, either in Iraq or in the more widespread bombing of occupied Afghanistan. U.S. officials dispute findings of fact and law in investigations by the UN and the Afghan government, but they accept no independent mechanism for resolving these disputes, effectively shielding themselves from accountability.
Besides simply not being informed of the extent of the U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. public has been subject to military propaganda about the accuracy and effectiveness of “precision” weapons. When military forces detonate tens of thousands of powerful bombs and missiles in a country, even highly accurate weapons are bound to kill many innocent people. When we are talking about 33,000 bombs and missiles exploding in Iraq, 55,000 in Afghanistan and 7,700 in Libya, it is critical to understand just how accurate or inaccurate these weapons really are. If only 10 percent missed their targets, that would mean nearly 10,000 bombs and missiles blowing up something or somewhere else, killing and maiming thousands of unintended victims.
But even the latest generation of “precision” weapons is not 90 percent accurate. One of the world’s leading experts on this subject, Rob Hewson, the editor of the military journal Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that  20 to 25 percent of the 19,948 precision weapons used in the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq in 2003 completely missed their targets. The other 9,251 bombs and missiles were not classified as “precision” weapons in the first place, so that only about 56 percent of the total 29,199 “shock and awe” weapons actually performed with “precision” by the military’s own standards. And  those standards define precision for most of these weapons only as striking within a 29 foot radius of the target.
To an expert like Rob Hewson who understood the real-world effects of these weapons, “shock and awe” presented an ethical and legal problem to which American military spokespeople and journalists seemed oblivious. As he told the Associated Press, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”The actual results of U.S. air strikes were better documented in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Epidemiological studies in Iraq bore out Hewson’s assessment, finding that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes.  The first major epidemiological study conducted in Iraq after 18 months of war and occupation concluded:

Violent deaths were widespread … and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children … Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.

When the same team from Johns Hopkins and Baghdad’s Al Mustansariya University did  a more extensive study in Iraq in 2006 after three years of war and occupation, it found that, amidst the proliferation of all kinds of violence, U.S. air strikes by then accounted for a smaller share of total deaths, except in one crucial respect: they still accounted for half of all violent deaths of children in Iraq.
No such studies have been conducted in Afghanistan, but hundreds of thousands of Afghans now living in refugee camps tell of  homes and villages destroyed by U.S. air strikes and of family members killed in the bombing. There is no evidence that the pattern of bombing casualties in Afghanistan has been any kinder to children and other innocents than in Iraq. Impossibly low figures on civilian casualties published by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan are the result of small numbers of completed investigations, not comprehensive surveys. They therefore give a misleading impression, which is then amplified by wishful and uncritical Western news reports.
When the UN identified only 80 civilians killed in U.S. Special Forces night raids in 2010, Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who worked on the UN report, explained that  this was based on completed investigations of only 13 of the 73 incidents reported to the UN for the year. He estimated the number of civilians killed in all 73 incidents at 420. But most U.S. air strikes and special forces raids occur in resistance-held areas where people have no contact with the UN or the Human Rights Commission. So even thorough and complete UN investigations in the areas it has access to would only document a fraction of total Afghan civilian casualties. Western journalists who report UN civilian casualty figures from Afghanistan as if they were estimates of total casualties unwittingly contribute to a propaganda narrative that dramatically understates the scale of violence raining down from the skies on the people of Afghanistan.
President Obama and the politicians and media who keep the scale, destructiveness and indiscriminate nature of U.S. air strikes shrouded in silence understand only too well that the American public has in no way approved this shameful and endless tsunami of violence against people in other countries. Day after day for 11 years, U.S. air strikes have conclusively answered the familiar question of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?” As Congressmember Barbara Lee warned in 2001, we have “become the evil we deplore.” It is time to change course. Ending the daily routine of deadly U.S. air strikes, including but by no means limited to drone strikes, should be President Obama’s most urgent national security priority as he begins his second term in office.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

Dead Enough: The Reality of the “Lesser Evil”

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To all those now hailing the re-election of Barack Obama as a triumph of decent, humane, liberal values over the oozing-postule perfidy of the Republicans, a simple question:

Is this child dead enough for you?

This little boy was named Naeemullah. He was in his house — maybe playing, maybe sleeping, maybe having a meal — when an American drone missile was fired into the residential area where he lived and blew up the house next door.

Read futher at Chris Floyd’s Empire Burlesque: Dead Enough: The Reality of the “Lesser Evil”.